Pistorius Murder Trial Postponed After Judge Assessor Gets Sick

Paralympian gold medalist Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial was postponed until April 7 after one of Judge Thokozile Masipa’s two assistants fell ill.

“We cannot proceed,” Masipa told the High Court in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, today. “One of my assessors is not well.”

Pistorius’s defense was supposed to start its case today, with the athlete expected to take the stand to explain why he killed his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, at his home on Valentine’s Day last year. Double-amputee Pistorius, 27, has pleaded not guilty to murdering Steenkamp and three gun-related charges. He says he thought she was an intruder when he shot her through a locked toilet cubicle door in his bathroom.

Masipa will give a final judgment, with help from the assessors, because South Africa doesn’t have a jury system. The trial, which is being broadcast live on radio and TV, started on March 3. Known as the Blade Runner because of his J-shaped prosthetic running blades, Pistorius has been free on 1 million rand ($94,000) bail since February last year.

The prosecution rested its case on March 25.

Pistorius may go to jail even if Masipa believes the Paralympian’s version of the events that led to Steenkamp’s death, Marius du Toit, a criminal defense lawyer in Pretoria who served as a magistrate in South Africa’s North West and Northern Cape provinces, said in a March 26 e-mail.

Lesser Charge

Pistorius may be found guilty of a lesser charge of culpable homicide, which could carry a minimum sentence of five years, Du Toit said. Conviction on the charge of premeditated murder may get Pistorius life imprisonment, he said.

“Oscar’s testimony will be crucial,” Du Toit said. “There aren’t many holes in the prosecution’s case.”

Brian Webber, a lawyer on Pistorius’s legal team at Ramsey Webber Inc. in Johannesburg, said Pistorius “is likely to testify” in a March 26 phone interview.

Paul O’Sullivan, a private forensic investigator in Johannesburg, said the state will continue to make “80 percent” of its case when the defense calls witnesses.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel “discharged his responsibility in putting the necessary facts before the court,” O’Sullivan said by phone two days ago. Nel will “invite the court to draw the necessary conclusions from the defense’s case.”

Nel has sought to portray Pistorius as obsessed and reckless with weapons and having a quick temper. Witnesses testified how he shot through the sunroof of a car and in a Johannesburg restaurant.

Woman’s Screams

The athlete ordered six firearms, including a Smith & Wesson 500 revolver and a semi-automatic rifle, Sean Rens, a firearms trainer, told the trial on March 17. The order was canceled about a month after he shot Steenkamp, Rens said.

Neighbors of Pistorius in the Silver Woods Country Estate gated community where he lived in Pretoria have testified that they heard a woman’s screams and gunshots shortly after 3 a.m. local time. Defense lawyer Barry Roux argued the screams by Pistorius when he realized who he had shot.

Steenkamp was standing when the first hollow-point bullet broke her hip bone, then she fell on top of a magazine rack in the toilet, police ballistics expert Chris Mangena said in testimony on March 19. She was struck by two more bullets from Pistorius’s pistol, in the arm and the head, he said.

Mangena said that since the first bullet caused Steenkamp to fall from a standing position, it was probable that there was a delay after the initial shot before the final three were fired. The position of her arms showed Steenkamp may have been trying to shield herself after the first shot was fired, he said.

The charges have derailed the running career of the winner of six Paralympic gold medals and cost Pistorius sponsorship deals with Nike Inc. and Luxottica Group SpA’s Oakley.

Ossur hf, the Icelandic company that manufactures the blades used by Pistorius, said it may resume ties with the athlete if he’s acquitted of murder charges after announcing it had ended relations, Sveinn Solvason, Ossur’s chief financial officer, said by phone March 17.

Pistorius was the first double amputee to compete at the Olympics Games in London in 2012.

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